“Ring! Ringggg!” The abrupt sound of a bright red telephone stage left immediately silenced the still hubbub-ing audience. A suit-clad man ran on stage and opened his mouth before someone from the audience cried, “Don’t answer it!” The crowd burst into laughter, while the Writer, as we came to know this man, seemed to consider the advice for a beat before admitting he must. He picked up the phone to be reminded of the yet-unwritten musical he must submit two hours later.

So begins Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, the opening foreshadowing how interactive and bizarre the rest of the comedy would turn out to be. Indeed, as soon as the audience were invited to assist the Writer in creating the musical, we took no time in suggesting settings such as “a pet shop for garden gnomes”. The Writer enthusiastically invited further input, cracking casual jokes with volunteers as they contributed dozens of wacky ideas. A certain ‘Nigel’ spun out the winning title – Blue Gene – and, without further delay, two men in lab coats and glasses rushed onstage, and began improvising the opening song of the musical.

“[There were] many guffaws from the audience”

With many guffaws from the audience throughout, the five actors improvised the story of two egotistical scientists racing to beat each other at finding a secret formula to extend life. The scientists, Marcus and Samson, were supported by hilarious performances of the lab technician, Jane, former love interest, Marilyn, the real brains behind the scientists’ discovery, and Albert, the timid assistant wearing a “low-status hat” and with a big crush on Marcus. The five switched up song styles on command of the Writer, adding elements suggested by the audience, and complementing all with simple choreography and harmonisation.

Showstopper! is different from a traditional musical in many aspects. For one, there is a comparative lack of main characters; though Marcus and Samson got more spotlight in the beginning, Albert the low-status hat guy received much love from the audience and so ended up in a much more prominent role. Watching the actors trying to weave together new inputs from their spectators while maintaining the musical format was fun and engaging, but not without an edge of apprehension!

“Fun and engaging, but not without an edge of apprehension”

The sheer specificity and number of audience suggestions before each of the two acts certainly took the play in many completely unanticipated directions. Someone suggested during intermission via Twitter that, in reality, the story was about: “love and scones, molecular biologists.” This resulted in various ensuing adverts for Fitzbillies Bakery and a sexually charged scene. Finally, there was a request for a car chase, which was modified to include bicycles by popular demand. So Marcus chased Samson, who escaped the final presentation of their findings, on bicycles in despair, in the lead-up scene to the final happy ending of the story.

“The musical made me smile throughout”

Most impressive was the wonderful job the cast did in staying true to the various musical styles suggested by the audience. Marcus’ fast-paced freestyle rap in imitation of Hamilton may have rivalled Eminem! The band is absolutely to be commended for pairing both hilarious and serious moments with bits of sound effect and music, and following perfectly the actors’ need for extended refrains or adjusted tempo.

Of course, due to its improvised nature, the musical suffers in areas: the characters are rather one-dimensional at times, the dialogue repetitive and sometimes obvious for the purpose of rhyming and filling the line. However, none of this takes much away from the engaging nature of the performance. Overall, the musical made me smile all the way through.

Filled with wild, unexpected developments, the show is one worth seeing to remind ourselves of the pleasant surprises that creativity and talent combined can create.


Mountain View

Metamorphosis at the Corpus playroom

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre from the 28th to 30th September.